What happens when you take the best jazz musicians in the world, challenge them to create fresh arrangements of familiar songs, and then perform the pieces in a full state-of-the-art music hall? A night of sheer holiday joy for the winter season provided by none other than the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by the beloved Wynton Marsalis at the Strathmore Music Center this past weekend.
…brought the house to its feet and some holiday joy to spread around for the coming days.
With a sold-out crowd of all ages, the band entertained and amazed with holiday favorites of every generation. Opening to enthusiastic applause before they were even introduced, the band, diverse in age, ethnicity, and, yes this year finally gender, the musicians started swinging right away with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Though Marsalis is the face of the group, he stepped aside offering short verbal intros but allowed the younger singers and performers to shine. The first vocalist brought on stage was Veronica Swift with a powerhouse of a voice for her young age of 24. Swift, who first appeared on the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage at age 11, had style and rhythmic instincts of an Ella Fitzgerald, with a big band volume of a Doris Day and Edie Gorme. Swift, the daughter of two jazz musicians, completely changed vocal styles, opening with the lively “Everybody’s Waiting on the Man with the Bag” followed by a more serene yet stunning “Christmas Time is Here.”
Just when you thought the vocal highlight of the evening couldn’t be beat, the next vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, a charming young man from South Africa, appeared on stage to perform a unique and jazzy arrangement of the favorite “What Child is This?” The surprise of the evening was that several of the musicians put down their horns and gathered in the front of the group to open the number with a “Pentatonix-style” acapella intro arranged by trumpeter Marcus Printup. Sotashe followed with an effortless and soaring vocal reminding everyone of the great Nat King Cole. (He would later cement that impression with a lovely rendition of “The Christmas Song” performing with a range so large comparisons of a Johnny Mathis came to mind as well.)
There were so many fresh takes on holiday standards with seamless transitions of different styles, including a playful “Mr. Grinch” featuring creative riffs from the lower voices of the bass clarinet, bari sax, and string bass; a rockin’ “Winter Wonderland” arranged by bassist Carlos Enriquez; and “Caroling, Caroling” with, yes, a little salsa beat thrown in. A particular favorite was Swift’s rendition of the old Ella Fitzgerald recording of “Sleigh Ride” with her phenomenal scatting mimicking the solo horn riffs heard from players throughout the evening.
The final piece was a New Orleans style take on “Silent Night” with the rock ‘n roll sounds of a Jerry Lee Lewis style piano part from Dan Nimmer and a rousing guitar solo from James Chirillo. The arrangement brilliantly created by New Orleans’ own Victor Goines, musical director for the evening, brought the house to its feet and some holiday joy to spread around for the coming days.
Running Time: Approximately 120 minutes with intermission.